5 Steps to Time Management in the Cloud

February 13, 2011 at 12:45 am | Posted in Collaboration, Home Office, Remote Working | Leave a comment
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How many times have you agreed to a meeting  (or conference call or webex) and then, when you got back online, found that it clashes with another commitment?  No?  Well, it’s happened to me often enough that I decided I need to do something about it.

Up until the time (nearly 2 years ago now) when I stepped out of the corporate world and into independent consulting, I was happy to manage my work commitments through Outlook and Exchange server, conveniently relayed to me wherever I was through Blackberry.

When I set up Identigrate UK, the Outlook calendar on my home desktop PC became the heart of my time management strategy.   Judicious use of categories allowed me to distinguish between business and domestic commitments, while allowing MrsV1951 to act as unpaid diary manager in my absence.  Fine for starters, but as I figured out how to run a consulting operation, so I needed to add some sophistication.

Step 1 – Add a laptop

The ability to work at a client site makes a decent laptop an essential item of kit for any consultant.  The problem is, how to maintain a single coherent diary across both desktop and laptop, with the ability to make changes to either.  The answer proved to be very simple and – like a lot of things these days – came from Google.  I already had a Google account and, though I didn’t (and still don’t) make much use of Gmail, I am a big fan of Google Reader.  It was a simple matter to add Google Calendar and to install and configure the free calendar sync application on each of the two machines.

I have both machines set to sync once per hour, so on average their Outlook Calendars are up to date within 30 minutes.

Step 2 – Sync to iPhone

My next acquisition – and destined to become a vital part of my travelling toolkit – was my iPhone.  Now, I could send and receive emails on the road, in much the same way as I used to do with Blackberry.  Initially, I chose to sync the iPhone calendar to my Outlook calendar when I connected to iTunes.  Of course, this meant remembering to do this before setting out on each trip.  I needed to do better than that.  Once again, the answer lay with Google Calendar.  The iPhone can be configured to sync to Google Calendar, by adding it as a new Microsoft Exchange account.  If the iPhone is configured for Push delivery, then it will sync whenever you start the calendar app.

So, now, I have calendars on the desktop, laptop and iPhone.  I can add, delete or modify entries on any one of those devices and within a short time (say 30 minutes), it’s propagated to the other two devices.

Step 3 – Lotus Notes

In May 2010, I joined IBM Global Business Services and found myself with yet another laptop and yet another calendar to include in my synchronisation scheme.  This time however, I had to find a way of dealing with Lotus Notes.  The solution came in the form of CompanionLink,the only paid-for commercial product in my strategy.  CompanionLink is actually a very versatile tool, which can sync events, contacts and to do lists between a wide range of applications and mobile devices.  The version I used, CompanionLink Express limits you to one from each category to sync.  Once installed, it runs in the system tray on the laptop and connects to sync (you choose either one-way or two-way) according to a pre-defined schedule.

This brings our running total to 3 PCs/laptops and one iPhone all synchronised through a single Google Calendar, still with a latency of around 30 minutes to propagate a new entry to all the devices.

Step 4 – Add travel destinations

I’m a long-time user of LinkedIn and in the past, have occasionally used the built-in TripIt application for travel planning.  It occurred to me that, whether I use TripIt (on LinkedIn or through its website) to plan the details of a trip or not, it might be a useful way of just recording my whereabouts geographically.

TripIt supports iCal as a mechanism for keeping a calendar up to date with travel plans.  This facility is available for all the components of my sync strategy, with the exception of Lotus Notes, where I would need to upgrade to v8.5 to get iCal support.  However, there’s a small catch in this plan.  Subscribing a device (with Outlook, Notes, Google Calendar or iPhone) to an iCal feed actually creates a separate calendar on that device.  Google Calendar and iPhone will happily display all calendars simultaneously on a single display, but Outlook only allows you to view two separate calendar panes side by side.

Notwithstanding the small problems over display, the effect is that I can quickly and easily publish my whereabouts in advance and show them as an all day event on the calendar.  I can do this from within LinkedIn, via the TripIt website or using the TripIt widget in the Lotus Notes sidebar.

Step 5 – Publishing a schedule online

So, now I have a (more or less) single consistent view of my diary across all the devices I use and that view will update everywhere as soon as I make a change.  The last challenge then is to make that information available to others.  Of course, I could just give access to my Google Calendar, but that contains a lot of detail about my activities, both business and personal.  The solution came from fellow IBMer Emily O’Byrne.  I noticed that Emily points people to Tungle.me to view her schedule.  Tungle.me publishes your availability in real-time to interested parties and allows them to schedule a meeting or call with you at a time when you’re free.  Tungle does this by syncing with your existing calendar and works for people inside and outside your organisation.  It can sync simultaneously with multiple calendars and you have control over how much detail to share.

So, you can check out my schedule on tungle.me, which uses Google Calendar to show times when I’m available and uses TripIt to show where I am on any day when I’m travelling.

Try it Yourself

Back in the 1980s, as PCs were becoming available for the first time, the Managing Director of a major British computer company was asked if he’d be using one of his company’s new PCs.  He replied that if his life ever became so complicated that he needed a computer to manage his time, he’d change his lifestyle.  Now though, for many of us, it’s hard to imagine not using PCs, laptops, smart phones and the web to plan our activities and track down those that we deal with.

I’m not saying what I’ve described is the only way to get a single synchronised view, nor even necessarily the best way.  But, I am saying it works for me.  Try it out yourself and let me know how you get on.  If you find a neater way of doing things, I’d really like to hear!

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Five Things To Do With A PC When You Have No Internet Connection (via Speaking Freely)

August 16, 2010 at 11:00 pm | Posted in Home Office, Systems Management | 3 Comments

A while back I wrote about the frustration of losing broadband at a critical time (is there ever a good time for it to happen?). So, I was intrigued come across this post on the “Speaking Freely” blog by Digital Ghost.  It’s from February 2007, but you can catch more recent posts here.

We all know that we need to keep on top of the housekeeping on our PC, particularly if we use it for business as well as home use. The truth is, we don’t bother until something goes wrong.

Take a look at 5 (well, 6 actually, but you can read them for yourself) eminently sensible things to do while you’re waiting for your broadband provider to come to your rescue.

I had no connectivity at all yesterday but since it was Monday, I wanted to remain productive. 1. Clean out and categorize your bookmarks. I don’t know about you, but I tend to just click ‘bookmark this page’ and call it good. Yesterday, when I hit the little ‘down arrow’ on Firefox to let the bookmark list scroll down I counted. Not sites, but seconds. 11 seconds worth of scrolling bookmarks is way too many. If you haven’t visited a site in a mo … Read More

via Speaking Freely

How Was It for You?

April 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Collaboration, Home Office | 3 Comments
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Credit & Copyright: Marco Fulle (Stromboli Online)

  So, how was the office when you arrived at work on last Monday morning?  Quiet?  Like all good disasters, the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland was the first of a cascading series of events.   The eruption occurred at a time when, unseasonably the prevailing winds across the UK were from the North West (typically at this time of year, our weather comes from the South West), carrying the ash cloud over Northern Europe.  In truth the authorities had no choice to close airspace until the picture became clearer.  But, you know all this.  The key thing, is it happened on the final weekend of the schools’ Easter holidays, leaving thousands of families stranded. Up to 100,000 Britons were caught up in the chaos, so chances are, at least some of your staff didn’t show up on Monday morning and some of them may not be back yet.   It’s always inconvenient when staff are absent, but what if they’re key workers?  While we’re prepared (at least to some degree) to cope with major disruptions to our IT infrastructure, or even our physical premises, there’s an increasing awareness that people also affect business continuity.   When disaster strikes, the first priority is to stop events spiralling out of control and developing into a crisis.  In his book “Managing the Human Factor in Information Security“, David Lacey describes how the most sophisticated organisations have standing crisis management teams and conduct regular exercises for those team, anticipating a wide range of situations, however improbable, and planning the business response to protect reputation and customer confidence.  A little over a year ago, we were listening in horror to apocalyptic forecasts of the impending Swine Flu pandemic.  Mercifully, that didn’t happen to anything like the level feared.  But hopefully, the  planning you did then (you did make plans, didn’t you?) will have helped you this week.  As we emerge from the recession, staffing levels have been pared to the bone; plus, we know that many families barely cope with childcare provisions, particularly during school holidays.  So, it’s prudent to assume that loss of key workers is to be a recurring problem.  

 To prepare your business, you need to be able to answer the following questions:       

  1.  Do you know who your key workers are?
  2. Do you know where they are at the moment? 
  3. What critical activities are they handling in the short-term?
  4. What information do they need to keep those activities moving?
  5. Can they access it remotely if necessary?
  6. If a key worker becomes unavailable, who could deputise?
  7. Do those deputies know what  the priority actions are?
  8. Can they reach the necessary information?

One important thing you could do, which is specific to the recent problem, is to provide assistance to key staff when they’re travelling, either on business or for pleasure.  Until last year, I worked for a very large global software vendor.  When I booked a trip through the corporate travel booking system, my itinerary and contact details were automatically passed to a partner organisation.  I carried a card with telephone numbers for a 24 hour emergency contact centre and, if needed, the partner could arrange direct assistance including evacuation if needed.        Once you understand the “who” and the “what”, you can turn your attention to the “where” and the “how” by preparing mitigation strategies:       

  1.    Equip your key staff to work off the premises —  many of your key workers may already be equipped with laptops and smart phones, to fulfil their day-to-day responsibilities.  Do they need to be given additional equipment?  3G dongles or modems?   Would it be wise to provide more key staff with laptops and smart phones?
  2. Make sure your key staff are set up to work from home — As well as providing the necessary equipment, you need to be sure that home workers have adequate facilities.  The UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development offers advice on managing home workers.
  3. Make sure your key staff have access to audio/video conferencing and online meeting facilities — Providing access to an audio conference bridge is easy to set up.  You can relay the bridge details by mobile phone or email as needed.  Where staff need to use this facility with customers or partners, they’ll need their own bridge account with your supplier.  There are a range of online meeting systems, such as Microsoft Live Meeting, Citrix Goto Meeting or Cisco Webex.  Many organisations ban the use of Skype on corporate networks, but in an emergency, it’s simple to use and many people already have access from their home PCs.
  4. Rethink your admission control for personal devices — Organisations are understandably reluctant to let staff use personal devices (PCs, smart phones) to access the corporate network.  But, in an emergency, this could be the only way to reconnect key workers, who can’t make it into the office.  Consider whether you can pre-approve home PCs for some key staff (Do they have up-to-date anti-virus/spyware?  Is Windows Update turned on?) and relax network admission controls to allow their use in an emergency (you don’t use admission controls?  We really need to talk!)
  5. Decide how you’ll cope with the additional connections through your VPN gateways and firewalls — The likelihood is that your contingency plans will mean a large increase in the number of staff access the corporate network from outside.  It’s wise to hold discussions with the vendors of your perimeter security solutions beforehand, to decide how any licence “overdraft” can be handled.
  6. Make sure that deputies can access all the data they need in the absence of key staff — This is a procedural issue, to provide elevated access privileges to those staff who will deputise for missing key workers.  The procedures for requesting and approving elevated privilege, and for “break glass” access in a fast-developing emergency can be built into your identity and access management systems, but that’s a subject for another post on another day.
  7. Consider how you can arrange for collaboration on key project information —  I’ve written before in this blog about how you can organise information in Microsoft OneNote and synchronise it between an office PC and a laptop.  I’ve also written about how this synchronisation can be extended to the iPhone.  In the corporate environment, collaboration using OneNote notebooks can be managed through the (increasingly ubiquitous) Sharepoint portal.  Using a combination like this, the key information needed for critical activities is shared between all the members of your team and can be accessed almost wherever they are.  For now, the solution for iPhone is limited to read-only, but even that is due to be rectified very shortly.

One final thought — like all contingency plans, you need to test your arrangements.  There are bound to be things you’ve forgotten and you’ll only find out what they are when you do it.  Online tech news website Silicon.Com arranges periodic “Work at Home”  days, where all the editorial staff stay out of the office and they try to run the business day as normal.  It’s an excellent way to find out what works and what needs tweaking.  

Lost Connection

April 15, 2010 at 2:56 pm | Posted in Business Continuity Planning, Home Office | 3 Comments
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If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you have regular access to an Internet connection, either at home, or at work , or both.  So, let me start by asking you some questions:

  • How important is your Internet connection to your every day life?
  • How long can you afford to be without the connection?
  • Have you made any plans to cope with the loss of your connection?

It never ceases to amaze me how quickly we’re all becoming dependent upon Internet-based communications.  10 years ago, dial-up modems were the norm and home access to the Internet was only for the technically savvy.   Over the last decade, I’ve moved through unlimited evening and weekend access, to unlimited anytime access and onto broadband, first at 512Kbps and by increments up to 8Mbps (as luck should have it, the local BT exchange is around 150 yards from V1951 Towers, so we do actually get a reasonable speed).  We use that connection for 3 different PCs, an internet radio, my iPhone, my home office phone, our Nintendo Wii (for BBC iPlayer), MrsV1951’s Nintendo DS and anything else we can think of.  And the trend is bound to continue.  More and more devices are now internet-enabled.  Did you know that you can even buy TVs with built-in Skype?  No?  Well, take a look at this

We use our internet connection as the platform of choice for banking, managing insurances, researching new purchases (and often making those purchases), booking holidays and countless other day-to-day activities.  We’re currently looking forward to being able to make and change appointments at the local doctors’ surgery online.  Plus of course, as a self-employed consultant, I mostly work from home! 

So, a few weeks ago, I was running seriously late (for a variety of reasons) on the promised delivery of a draft report to a customer.  At around 7pm that evening, my broadband connection failed.  Disaster!  MrsV1951 and I were due to leave at 5am the following morning for the airport, en route to a few days holiday.  A quick investigation showed that while all my devices were connecting to the wi-fi element of the Home Hub, none could reach the outside world.  The hub however seemed to be synchronised with the ADSL service.  Having first got an apology off to my customer (thank heavens for iPhone and 3G – the customer kindly agreed to a generous extension to the deadline), I phoned BT’s help desk (inevitably, it’s in India).  I explained the situation – I have identical symptoms from multiple PCs, so it looks like the hub – but the help desk agent was clearly following a script and insisted that we slowly and painfully check configuration settings and Internet Explorer settings on the PC, and then repeat it all on a second PC and then change the connection from wireless to wired and do it all again.  After 2 hours, during which I’d been told to click the reset button in Internet Explorer (“Don’t worry, it won’t change your configuration.”  Yes it did! For a start, it disabled all my add-ins), I was close to hysteria.  My comments about single point failures were totally ignored, but finally, I got the answer (“We can see the sync signal from your ADSL hub, so it must be a problem on the hub.  We’ll try a hard reset and, if that doesn’t work we’ll need to replace the hub.”) that I’d been hoping for at the start of the call.  Fortunately, that restored the connectivity, just leaving me another couple of hours, resetting all the configurations I’d lost during the troubleshooting.  The following morning, tired after only a couple of hours sleep and a long drive to the airport, I vented my frustration on Twitter.   I was quite surprised to get the following reply:

Useful to have a fairly direct line of communication to people who can help.  If you’re a BT Total Broadband customer, it’s well worth following this account on Twitter (@BTCare) for service updates.  Interestingly, I’d not seen this publicised anywhere until they contacted me.  Incidentally, a little detective work revealed that the fault coincided with BT pushing a firmware update to the hub and also that I wasn’t the only person to lose their service as a result.

So, given that I work from home, I should have had the sense to make provision for this sort of failure, right?  Well, maybe, but it seems to me that we’ve already come to regard our broadband connection as just another utility.  We assume that it’s going to be available and working, whenever we choose to use it.  Product assurance engineers will explain that component failure rates mean there will always be a degree of unreliability.  However, that can often be unacceptable.  In the military, some systems are classed as militarily essential.  Thus, they are designed with multiple levels of redundancy and spares are carried, even for components that are never expected to fail.  David Hart Dyke was Captain of HMS Coventry during the Falklands War.  He once commented that “To me, reliability means that, when I push the button, it works.” 

So,  when I returned from holiday, I bought a 3G dongle and tested it from my desktop PC and my laptop.  I’m not going to get caught out again.

Looking to the future, my neighbour and his neighbour are both consultants, also working from home offices.  We’re discussing the possibility of introducing routers and CAT 5 cables between our 3 houses, to provide a fallback capability if any one of us loses broadband connection.  We might even look into broadband aggregation services, to permanently combine our bandwidth.  Peter Cochrane describes how aggregation services work in his blog.

Finally, I found a series of short videos by journalists, scientists and technologists, speculating on what the World be will be like in 10 years’ time.  You can find these thought-provoking pieces on  the Huffington Post.  The last video, is by Johan Bergendahl, VP of Marketing at Ericsson and discusses the importance of broadband.  Take a look at it below.

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